Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Life is a Negotiation

Life is not a cabaret. It is not a party, or an entertaining spectacle. You are not supposed to emulate celebrities or other people who excel at playing make-believe. Life is not about creating dramatic tension by sharpening your differences with other people. It is not about producing more contention and conflict.

In fact, life is a negotiation. When conflict arises, negotiation is used to resolve it. More often, we negotiate our differences in order to avoid conflict. Negotiation is about getting along. It is not about producing more intense emotion.

You begin negotiating when you get over the idea that life is about getting your way. And you improve your negotiating skills when you accept that life is not about getting away with whatever you can.

You will perfect your negotiating skills when you decide that you will no longer lord it over others or induce them to live in your own private psychodrama.

Negotiation is about give and take. Some people are all give and no take; others are all take and no give. They are not good negotiating partners.

In a negotiation you give some and you get some. Neither party gets all that he or she wants; both get something. Negotiation is not the place to realize your desires. To negotiate effectively you need to overcome all-or-nothing thinking.

Negotiation involves seeing eye-to-eye. It involves compromise, agreement, and trust. Curiously, classical psychoanalysis, the kind that uses the couch, makes it impossible for patient and analyst to see eye-to-eye.

For psychoanalysis and for any form of therapy that has descended from it, negotiation becomes a way to repress the full-throated expression of your deepest needs, impulses, fantasies, and feelings.

And for those who are familiar with the French intellectual's master myth, the Hegelian myth of the master and the slave, I would emphasize that there is no possibility of negotiation between master and slave.

Most forms of therapy will not teach you how to negotiate. They will show you how to avoid negotiated solutions, and thus, to produce more and better dramatic conflict. Surely, such conflict does get resolved, but not with anything like a meeting of the minds. More often, it is resolved in victory or defeat, in empowerment and subjugation.

Negotiation is about finding common ground, finding the mean between extreme positions. It is about the mean, not the meaning. You cannot be mean-spirited and negotiate. Negotiation involves generosity, but not excessively.

The mean is ethical. Aristotle defined ethical behavior as the mean between extremes. Courage, he said, was the mean between trigger-happy and gun-shy.

The most obvious negotiations involve splitting the difference. Two people negotiate the price of a rug or a car. by now these are formal rituals. The man who does not think to negotiate the price of rug in a bazaar is a rube.

Some things cannot be negotiated. One day two women were brought before the Biblical King Solomon because they both claimed that a baby was theirs. In that case Solomon wisely knew that he could not split the difference.

Negotiation always involves compromise. Some years ago the counterculture decreed that compromise was a four-letter word. It meant that you had given up, sold out, abandoned your dreams and your dramas, to become a middle class automaton living in a little box just like everyone else.

Most countercultural warriors outgrew that mental spasm. After all, it is not all that easy to make a living by letting yourself be led around by your bliss. Don't the people who refuse to compromise become the most compromised?

Life is not a clash of contraries. It is not an eternal conflict between thesis and antithesis leading to a dubious synthesis which then becomes a new thesis. You may not recall, but there once was a time when radicals thought it was a good idea to kill a few policemen because they reasoned that this would cause the entrenched powers to reveal their true fascist face by oppressing the slumbering masses. This oppression would awaken the masses and incite them to revolt against the power elite and lead the way to the new socialist future.

Did it ever really work out that way? Not really, but, if you truly believe, you will not allow that to compromise your beliefs.

If the great mythmakers believe anything, they believe that one should never negotiate with reality. That is why they ultimately fail.

Friday, July 25, 2008

About Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Edwards is back in the news, for reasons that I will happily ignore. One fortunate side-effect of the many articles about her current situation is that it drew my attention to an elegy
she wrote about the death of Tony Snow.

In her article Edwards meditates on an encounter she had during a July 4th parade. There a man walked up to her to wish her well, but not before adding: "although we don't agree on much of anything."

It was not the first time she had heard such a remark, and she offered her customary reply, to the effect that they probably agree on more than he thinks.

What strikes me about this is that so many people feel the need to define their identity as a function of their ideology. Almost as though it is something you should put on your calling-card as an identifying character trait.

It almost goes without saying that many people on the left are as bad as this erstwhile Republican.

It should not, however, go without saying that this man's remark was a sign of nothing more or less than bad manners? What, pray tell, came over him?

Was this man afraid that his expression of concern for a neighbor might be taken as a sign that he was a liberal? Was he afraid that she might try to convert him to the Democratic party? Does his gesture remind you of a pious Christian crossing himself when he comes into contact with a witch?

How did it happen that people do not seem themselves as neighbors but as members of competing cults, even warring tribes? How did it happen that loyalty to ideas became more important than loyalty to community?

Elizabeth Edwards did not take serious offense at the remark. She was puzzled by it; it does not represent the way she lives her live and the way she deals with her fellow citizens.

Much else is wrong with self-identifying by ideological beliefs. High on the list is the fact that it can easily lead to witch hunts. Once you start choosing your friends on the basis of their political or religious beliefs, then you have to be very, very sure that the person in question really believes what he says he believes.

In Renaissance Spain Jews who were forced to convert often underwent pretend conversions, only to continue practicing Judaism in private.

No one includes his political persuasion on his business card. For good reason. If everyone did it and if they would only deal with people who held the right political beliefs it would be nearly impossible to do business.

Yesterday I was giving a talk at the Permal Group about how to negotiate conflict. If you don't know, the Permal Group is a top-of-the-line hedge fund advisory firm. Like other important firms it is always working to facilitate good relations, both with and outside of the company. And it knows that resolving conflict is essential to allowing everyone to do their jobs effectively.

As part of my presentation I created a hypothetical situation. Say you are holding a meeting to choose a new marketing plan. Different members of your group are presenting different proposals. There is going to be a vigorous debate, but then, only one plan will be chosen.

Obviously, the best outcome is that the final plan will contain elements of the different proposals... thus everyone will have a stake in the plan's success. Once you choose one plan over the other, the people whose plans were not chosen will have a personal stake in failure. It is as though they were to open every meeting about implementing the new play with a statement to the effect: I do not agree with you about anything. Again, this is not a good way to run the business.

How does the group leader make it that everyone feels vested in the new plan, no matter who suggested it first. Surely, he must greet each proposal by showing that he has thought about it, that he is impressed with the work that went into it, and that he finds many good things in it. He might not accept it in the end, but he cannot dismiss it out of hand. He cannot pretend that it has no value. And not just because he will demoralize everyone in the room. The other reason is that, after all, he hired these people. If their work is that bad, how could he have hired them.

So, the proposals will be divided into good and better, not good and worthless. In the end the marketplace will make the final judgment, not the team leader.

As I told the group yesterday, I see this situation as an application of the Robert rule, after Chief Justice John Roberts. Speaking before a group of law students at the University of Minnesota Robers was asked what advice he would give to future appellate attorneys.

His answer was simple and direct. He told them that it was bad to stand in front of the justices and say that they are right on the law, right on the facts, and right on the legal reasoning... as opposed to their opponents who are wrong on every aspect of their briefs.

If, he added, the issues were so clear-cut, they would not be in front of the Supreme Court.

Besides, when you say that have it all right and they have it all wrong, you are not presenting a negotiating position and are not appealing to the best judgment of the assembled justices. You are trying to impose your will on them. At the least, this is offensive; at most, it will make them less sympathetic to your client.

It is better to begin by acknowledging the positive elements in the opposing briefs. Then, you can argue that your position is better, more cogent, more consistent with precedent, whatever.

The good news is, you can try this at home. The next time you are engaged in a discussion about a controversial issue with someone you are likely to disagree with, do not reject his or her opinion out of hand. Begin by showing some respect to your interlocutor. Find something of value in his position. You will soon discover that this is far more difficult, even mentally taxing, than simply saying that the two of you agree on nothing and that his or her opinion has no merit whatsoever.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ruled by Emotion?

Yesterday I turned to the MSN Money website to receive my weekly dose of gloom and doom from Bill Fleckenstein. In his column Contrarian Chronicles Fleckenstein has been arguing that the end to our financial crisis is far from nigh.

Be that as it may, I was struck to read Fleckenstein's declaration that all human beings are ruled by emotion.

In many circles this counts as dogmatic truth. The problem is: contrarian investing requires you to take positions that are contrary to the emotional mood of the day.

As Baron Philippe de Rothschild famously said: Buy when there's blood in the streets. Or as John Templeton put it: buy what no one wants and sell what everyone wants.

Either way, the contrarian investor, by definition, is not ruled by his emotions. He profits from the market extremes caused by the emotional excesses of others.

Surely, people are prone to emotion-provoked extremes, but they are also capable of stepping back and making decisions that are contrary to the pull of their emotions.

The conclusion: people are ruled by emotion except when they are not.

Speaking of being ruled by emotion, directly after Fleckenstein's article was one by Liz Pulliam Weston. Wading into what is often the most emotion-laden of human relationships Weston recommended that couples manage their marital assets as though they were running a business. "Get real," she said, marriage is more than a romantic arrangement.

Of course, Weston was aware that many readers would find her approach somewhat cold. When her colleague MP Dunleavey had previously advised women who were seeking divorces to plan, prepare, and organize themselves financially, the message boards lit up with undisguised hostility.

These two authors seemed to be telling women not to allow themselves to be ruled by emotion. They seemed to be conspiring to wring the last ounce of feeling out of marriage.

Were they telling women to ignore their hearts and to suppress their emotions? Weren't they simply trying to save women from the perils of blindly following their emotions? Weren't they simply telling women to pay closer attention to reality?

Weston's argument was deceptively simple. We all know that more marriages come to grief over money than over sex, drugs, and love. Therefore, to make a marriage work, why not run its finances like a business. Couples need to learn how to budget, how to organize their spending, how to save and invest. And they need to do it together, as a couple.

In many quarters today, the terms "husband" and "wife" have been superceded by the more neutral "partner." If we take the term seriously, we might ask a young couple preparing for marriage if they would be happy to be in business with each other.
Would they be happy to have each other as business partners? Like it or not, if they marry they will be in business together.

To me this is a far more constructive contribution than the remarks by psychotherapist Tina Tessina on the Yahoo site. Her view, based merely on a collection of anecdotes, is emotional connection makes relationships work.

The therapy culture takes this to be dogmatic truth. But, isn't it irresponsible to tell people that if they love each other enough they will not have any problems, over money or anything else? And doesn't this message tell people that relationships do not need to involve work... either to save money, to budget expenses, or to choose investments wisely?

And Tessina seems not to have noticed that emotions can also be negative, and that negative emotions can also bind people together in infernal relationships.

Strangely enough, connections based on anger and jealousy, resentment and hatred, are often quite durable. Some people would not know what to do with themselves if they did not have their daily dose of marital combat.

At times, positive and negative emotions co-exist under the same roof. The ensuing turmoil is the price for allowing oneself to be ruled by emotion.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My Kingdom for a Fish

What is the story behind the story of the Inbev takeover of Anheuser-Busch? According to the Wall Street Journal, it was really all about the fish that got away. And also a function of the hubris of August Busch III.

In a story it offers as a
footnote the Journal begins by explaining that if Anheuser Busch had had a controlling stake in its Mexican partner, Grupo Modelo-- brewer of Corona Extra-- it would have been too large to be taken over.

AB has had a stake in Modelo for more than a decade but the Mexican firm has refused to allow AB to control it.

When the question first arose in the early 1990s the two principals, AB CEO August Busch III suggested that he and Valentin Diez, major shareholder and executive in Modelo, go on a three day fishing trip to Cabo San Lucas, the better to build trust.

On their first day out Busch hooked a marlin, no small accomplishment itself. While he was reeling it in he received a phone call. He passed the rod and reed to Diez, a man who had little experience with this level of sports fishing.

After finishing the call Busch announced that he had urgent business in the states and had to leave immediately. He order the Modelo representatives to reel in the marlin immediately. This is easier said than done. It takes hours, not minutes, to accomplish such a feat.

Busch could not wait. He told them to let the fish go, cut short the fishing trip, and dumped his presumptive colleagues off at the marina.

Modelo concluded that it would not allow itself to be controlled by such a man.

It was willing to raise money by selling him a stake in the company, but it was never willing to give him control. Would you want to be taking orders from such a man or be subject to his whims?

You might ask yourself this: what if Busch III really had urgent business to attend to? Any executive would understand that.

True enough. A good executive would not, however, barked orders. He would not have assumed that his business was the only business that mattered. He would have presented his problem to his guests and would have tried to negotiate an amicable solution.

Busch III was acting more like a Drill Sergeant than a General. Who wants to work for someone who does not know who he is?

The moral of the story, in three parts:
1. Be careful what you fish for...
2. Respect is not a one way street...
3. It is more blessed to give than to receive respect, but if
you fail to give it you are far less likely to receive it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Psychobabble for $600 a Session, Part 3

According to the NY Times today's top therapists are complaining that their patient population has changed. In the good old days they were working with out-of-work heirs and heiresses; now they have to deal with people who have earned their fortunes themselves.

They appear to have been more comfortable with the trust-fund crowd than with the strivers and achievers. The former were more depressed; the latter more narcissistic. More importantly, the former made for more obedient, compliant, and dedicated patients.

But are there other reasons why people who are depressed are no longer signing up for four-times-a-week therapy? After all, everyone knows that insight-laden therapy is no longer the treatment of choice for depression. Better ones would include SSRIs, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and aerobic exercise. And to this we must add the advice of Harvard's Dr. Richard Mollica: "the best anti-depressant is a job."

The message seems to have gotten through. Today's tycoons seem to be less willing to indulge their scions. Some of the wealthiest, like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, strictly limit how much their children can inherit. They see excessive unearned wealth as a curse, encouraging sloth, decadence, and interminable psychotherapy.

So, people who lived off of inherited wealth were wonderful patients; they worked the program; they excavated their past history; they got in touch with their feelings. They enjoyed introspecting; they came to all of their sessions; and were happy to be relieved of the obligation to get involved in the real world.

The new tycoons are nowhere near as compliant. They miss sessions with impunity, refuse to introspect, do not want to get in touch with their feelings, and stop treatment abruptly, apparently because their lives are going too well.

Is this a function of their narcissism? I think not. Try it from a different angle. Successful people usually want to see results. If they do not see progress that is commensurate with the time and expense, they will cut their losses.

In the old days psychoanalysts used to warn people against ending treatment prematurely. Unless you held out to the bitter end you would be consigned to an eternity of neurotic torment. Nowadays, for people who have achieved a large measure of worldly success, this ploy no longer seems to work.

Heirs and heiresses had the kinds of problems that fell well within their therapists' comfort zones. They had been neglected and unloved by their parents; they were afraid that they would not measure up to their parents' success; they felt depressed because they did not have a real place in the world.

They may have had all the money in the world, but that does not give you a meaningful role in society. When someone asks what you do for a living you cannot say that you are passing your time spending your father's fortune.

But what was therapy offering to these people. Was it teaching them how to blame their parents for their indolence? Was it telling them that their successful fathers had done them a disservice by doing so well? Was it providing them with rationalizations for their inability to hold jobs? Was it making them think that inherited wealth was not a great opportunity, but an insurmountable problem. If so, it is no wonder they stayed depressed.

And how are you going to encourage someone to go out into the world when you are telling him that his happiness and well-being were sacrificed on the altar of his father's success.

Many trust-fund children face a simple, but difficult problem. Why should they work when they do not have to? Doesn't Freudian theory tell them that hard work involves repressing their creative potential and their libidinous urges.

Therapists pay lip service to "work," but their ethos suggests that a life of creative expression is a better way to go. Why should these young people follow in their parents' footsteps when that entailed pain, travail, high blood pressure, ulcers, and emotionally crippled children?

When therapy tells the scions of great wealth that hard work is repressive and exploitative, how can it expect that they will want to try to measure up.

Isn't life about pursuing pleasure by acting on your desires? Doesn't hard work diminish your capacity for same? But why does the therapy culture so blithely assume that work and pleasure are mutually exclusive, that you must repress your true desires in order to succeed at business?

I do not know how many therapists today would still cop to believing such a thing? Nonetheless it is built into the method. As most people should know by now, depression in and of itself will seriously limit your capacity for pleasure, and it will also diminish your appetite and your libido.

So, it makes a certain amount of sense that the therapy culture would promote different ways to overcome these symptoms. The culture has glorified the pursuit of pleasure, as though it were a fundamental right, to be obtained by any and all means. And it has encouraged people manufacture desires out of societal taboos and indulge any and all appetites.

If you have to work at pleasure, there is something wrong. And if you have to manufacture desires, you are never going to be satisfied with what you find.

The problem is not limited to therapists' offices. As a culture we are acting like we are heirs to limitless wealth, unwilling to do what our forebears did to accumulate it, because the therapy culture has taught far too many people that whatever they did was bad for their souls. So we happily live off its bounty and deal with our despair by making life into a permanent party.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Psychobabble for $600 a session, Part 2

The story of $600 a session therapy certainly struck a nerve. Therapists wrote in to the NY Times to defend their profession. Ordinary citizens concluded that therapy was just a racket. Many thought that the therapists were notably indiscreet. Finally, a smaller group was asking how these new tycoons could consult with a group of therapists I would describe as: the gang that couldn't think straight.

Weren't these therapists exhibiting the kind of narcissism that they are supposed to be treating. If you are in the business of labeling people as narcissistic you should keep a tighter handle on your own.

The problem with the high fee structure is not really the number. Rather, it is the value offered. Are these pseudo-philosophical insights really worth their weight in gold or are they fool's gold?

If the service you provide is worth what you are charging, well then, most people will not begrudge you the high fee. Movie stars have immense salaries because their presence translates into box office success. Fashion models can make thousands of dollars for a thirty-minute show because they help to sell clothes.

The reason people were amazed at the high fees therapists are charging was simply that they seemed out of proportion to the insight provided.

The Times was correct to present the story as a sign of the times, a sign of the excess that characterizes a gilded age. But there is another side to the story, implied, not explicit.

It is not an accident that this has been taking place in New York. The business of New York is finance. New York is the financial capital of the world and the people who are spending large sums on therapy are its masters-- whether hedge fund operators, investment bankers, or mortgage traders.

The real issue right now is not whether these masters of the financial universe have gained some insight into why they are so competitive, but, how well are they managing the world financial system? Today, the answer is: not very well.

Shouldn't this provoke a wave of humility in the therapists who are supposed be curing these tycoons of their hubris?

The issue is hubris, not narcissism. As the Greeks understood well, reality (or the gods) has a way of dealing with people who suffer hubris. Not everyone who is rich, or hyper-rich, is overwhelmingly arrogant. Some are modest and humble; some even deserve the money they are making.

Some people have worked hard to earn their fortunes. They have a right to do as they please with it. Others, however, have simply gotten lucky. Having been at the right place at the right time, they have cashed in.

The latter risk hubris more than the former. Many people who get lucky are like the man who walks into a casino for the first time and wins the jackpot. If he never again walks into a casino, he is smart. If he keeps coming back because he believes that he cannot lose, his hubris will surely do him in.

The problem is: when you make a lot of money, how do you know whether you are really that smart or are just plain lucky? Masters of the financial universe are often anxious because they simply do not know. They do know that what the markets give, the markets can very easily take away.

Others continue to make money, but their hubris destroys them in a different way. They believe that since they are brilliant at banking, they will also be great at running a retail operation or a mining company. Often they learn the hard way that different businesses require different skills.

Other men whose success convinces them that their judgment is infallible believe that they are also masters of dating, romance, and marriage. Many have been justly humbled by women.

If justice rules the world only those who suffered hubris would be brought down. But, as you might know, justice does not rule the world.

Some people whose banks have lost obscene amounts of money have walked away with excessively generous pay packages. Think Stanley O'Neill of Merrill Lynch or Charles Prince of Citigroup.

The worst injustice concerns those people who worked hard and long for Bear Stearns, but who, out of loyalty, held on to their company stock, only to see their life savings wiped out in the company's collapse.

Our own sense of justice leads us to want to tax some of these tycoons into oblivion. The problem is, they have so much money that, short of confiscating it all, you cannot tax them enough to make a difference. For all intents and purposes, their wealth is infinite.

This is one of the strange characteristics of today's billionaires. Warren Buffett likes to advocate raising the taxes of people like him. And yet, he has managed to shelter most of his vast fortune from taxes by giving it away to a foundation. To the best of my knowledge, he has not made any extra contributions to the Treasury.

The problem he and his fellow billionaires face is that there is no consumer good that they cannot buy. Worst yet, when they buy it, the expense makes no real difference in their ability to buy something else. They do not have to choose, because they can effectively buy everything. And they do not have to sacrifice the purchase of one item in favor of another. The loss of that experience, call it one's economical self, is no small psychological matter.

If you can't spend it, and if spending some of it makes no difference in your ability to keep on spending, what do you do? One thing you can do is to make foolish, risky trades. That is what seems to have happened to Bear Stearns.

It is like getting into a Ponzi scheme and imagining that you will be able to get out before it all falls down. If that is the only way the masters of the financial universe can participate in the consumer economy, then we all have a problem.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Psychobabble for $600 a Session

According to Eric Konigsberg's fine New York Times article, "Challenges of $600-a-Session Patients," $600 is the rate that hedge fund billionaires, entertainment moguls, and real estate developers pay for psychotherapy. For that money you could hire a good lawyer, so what do you get for $600 a session?

You would expect some superior level of insight. For those prices you would not settle for a warmed-over Dr. Phil, announcing: You've got issues! Or would you?

Let us stipulate that the psychiatrists quoted in the article may not be divulging their greatest thoughts. They may be saving the good stuff for their paying customers.

In any event, one thing you get for $600 a session is credentials. You get to see someone who has lots of degrees and titles, preferably the Department Chair.

Why does this matter? People who are insecure about their social standing can affirm their high status by announcing at charity balls and cocktail receptions that their doctor is Chairman of the Department. That is certainly worth something.

Or it may be that the very wealthy only respect their near-peers. They would not respect someone who charges much less. They may be getting a lot of psychobabble, but at those prices they are more likely to accept it. To you and I the insights might sound like the musings of an adolescent philosophy student. At $600 an hour they are scientific facts.

In the last line of the article a Department Chairman offered a pearl of high-priced wisdom: "All of the philanthropy you see... is the result of one man after another trying to conquer his mortality."

There it is: an insight that is worthy of a Freshman philosophy course. But what does it really mean? Simply put, the Chairman is one-upping his wealthy patients. I daresay he is also insulting them. See, he is saying, for all their worldly wealth they are afraid of dying. I, possessor of superior understanding and inferior means, am in better touch with my feelings.

Is that the be-all and end-all, the alpha and omega of human motivation? We are afraid to die. Does that explain all philanthropy?

What if people endow hospital wings because they want to provide high quality medical care for their fellow citizens? What if they fund research because they want to reduce human suffering? What if they endow libraries because they feel that making books available to more people for less money is socially beneficial? What if they feel that they need to give something back to a community or nation that has treated them well? And what if they like to have people slaver over them, kowtow to them, bestow honorary degrees on them, and treat them like modern-day Medicis.

Aren't these credible motives for philanthropy? I would hope so.

Perhaps I am not being entirely fair. Maybe I'm taking a sentence out of context and refusing to plumb its deeper existential meaning. If so, look at another example of really expensive insight.

A man is saying that he feels uneasy about whether or not he should spend $8,000,000 on a painting. (Funnily enough, I wrote a post called "But Is It Art?" about someone spending exactly $8,000,000 for a work of art. Check it out.)

Now his therapist is thinking that the man is just trying to impress him, so he replies: if you really want it, buy it. I daresay, this response is contemptuous. It is like saying: Do what you want... and don't bother me about it.

This therapist now goes to see his supervisor, who upbraids him for failing to explore his patient's anxiety. Given his superior insight-- that is what supervisor means-- he continues his thought.
He calls this spending a form of addiction and declares that addictions cannot be satisfied by gaining their objects. Then he says that the therapist is trying to comfort the patient's consumptive excesses. This is not a good thing because this compulsion is the patient's neurosis.

Do you feel that you are watching the blind leading the blind?

We should probably not be too harsh about the fact that this eminent psychiatrist has confused addiction with neurosis. If this patient is addicted, then he needs a twelve step program. He does not need to explore his anxiety.

The real confusion lies in the fact that when you are buying a painting or a scultpture, you are not spending, you are investing. You might be addicted to bespoke suits or orgies or heroin. You may spend your money or yourself indulging them. They are not investments. An expensive painting is.

But why not try a little common sense. The patient's uneasiness might be warning him that he is making a bad investment. Shouldn't this therapist and his supervisor know that their task is to help this man to explore all of the information he has about the painting, the art market, and his larger order to make the best decision? Would this not be better, and more respectful, than dismissing his unease with contempt and writing it off as pathology.

Take another example from the article. A highly credentialed Dr. Phil is working on his patient's moral dilemma. The tycoon is wondering whether he should work on a business deal or play catch with his 7 year old son.

The therapeutically-correct decision is to play catch. Thus, the therapist interprets: the man is afraid of playing catch because: "it's not an activity he can control or succeed at the high level of accomplishment to which he is accustomed." The patient has a control issue. The therapist has a problem formulating coherent thoughts.

I find this to be especially vapid. What if he wants to play catch but is facing a deal that requires his undivided attention because it involves the livelihood of thousands of people? What if his therapist has been guilt-tripping him for being a bad Dad? You can understand that this man would now be facing nothing other than a therapy-created conflict.

If this sounds a bit unreal, examine a somewhat analogous situation that was recently in the news. In July, 2007 two major hedge funds at Bear Stearns were in serious trouble. The firm was in turmoil. The situation required the undivided attention of top management. Yet, Chairman and CEO James Cayne was in Nashville playing in a bridge tournament. For seven hours every day he was giving his undivided attention to bridge. He could not be reached.

Fast forward to March, 2008. Bear Stearns is now on the verge of collapse. Is James Cayne, now reduced merely to Chairman, manning his desk? Not at all. He is at a bridge tournament, this time in Detroit.

You know the unhappy ending, especially unhappy for those who lost their jobs and their life savings when the company collapsed.

When balancing a business deal against a game of catch with a 7 year old, one should examine the level responsibility these wealthy people maintain. That, after all, is the rationale for their high incomes.

Take another example, this time of a politician with a control issue. The man in question has hired an expert to avise him on foreign policy. He does not like the advice he is hearing and wants to fire the expert.

Here the therapist intervenes. He declares that the politician has a control issue. How can he overrule someone who is more of an expert on foreign policy than he is? To this the politician replies: But I'm his boss. The therapist declares that this proves that the man has trouble giving up control.

The problem is: the world is full of experts, many of whom offer contradictory analysis and advice. Political leaders are charged with the responsibility of choosing among the different experts they consult. Their name will be on the policy; theirs will be the ultimate responsibility. How would a psychiatrist be able to take it for granted that a politician is wrong when he wants to dismiss an expert?

After all, Abraham Lincoln became a great war president by firing his generals. Would his therapist have told him that he had control issues?

The Times article declares that masters of the unvierse are ill-equipped to profit from talk therapy. Perhaps this is a good thing. Therapists seem to be bothered that these new patients are not like others who are equally rich but who inherited their wealth.

Heirs and heiresses tend to be depressed. They have trouble finding themselves, they are often disengaged from the world. They are great candidates for introspection.

The new tycoon are different. They are competitive and aggressive-- what a surprise!-- and they like to win. This makes them alpha males.

One wonders how many years of advanced training it took to understood that alpha males are aggressive, or even that they do not "open themselves to intimacy." Anyone who tells them that they need to get in touch with their feelings will be seen as an obstacle to their continued success. Such people are likely to be tuned out. No one gets to the top of a male status hierarchy by being sensitive and empathic, by opening himself to true love.

And we should be shocked that these experts in psychiatry do not know that becoming an alpha male causes an increase in serotonin levels in the brain. You would not expect this patient population to exhibit signs of depression.

Meantime, the therapists in question seemed to want to use their newspaper exposure to show that they are in touch with their own feelings. To set an example they confess that they feel chronically inferior to their patients, that they are jealous,contemptuous, resentful, and envious of their success.

Does this mean that these credentialed therapists possess superior self-awareness? Not at all. It means that they are whiners.

Can you imagine an attorney billing himself out at $600 an hour and feeling sorry for himself or feeling contempt for his client. He will likely feel happy to share in his client's success; he will want to share it. After all, he is part of the team. Therapists seem to have missed this point.

Of course, the article says nothing about how effective this expensive therapy is.

Fortunately, there have been some very wealthy public figures who have been up front about their experience of therapy. These people have clearly used therapy to overcome their intimacy issues and open themselves to love.

Take Woody Allen. While no one ever considered him to be an alpha male, this uber-consumer of psychotherapy capped off three decades of couchwork by falling in love-- with his son's adoptive half-sister.

But that is already old news. More recently, we have the case of New York Yankee third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, a man who is surely an alpha ballplayer. A few years ago A-Rod announced that he had profited immensely from a decade of psychotherapy. He liked it so much that he had two therapists. The result: he is so in touch with his feelings that he is now hanging out with Madonna in a Kabbalah den.

If that is what success looks like, I'd hate to see failure.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Urge

As I wrote on my website, psychotherapy should spend less time finding the "why" and more time working on the "what." Figuring out why people get things wrong is useless unless they know what to do to get them right.

This implies that it is wrong to think that human behavior is a mere expression of a mental process... of a thought, an impulse, or a fantasy. And it also implies that changing minds is not the best way to change behaviors.

A variation of this idea appeared last Sunday in The New York Times Magazine in an article by Scott Anderson:
"The Urge to End It All."

Anderson began by noting that despite the progress medicine has made in treating depression, the suicide rate has remained fairly constant. The problem, he says, is that mental health professionals have been looking at the "why," and not the "how" people commit suicide. It is about the means to act, not the meaning of the impulse.

When British homes were heated by coal, the heaters produced toxic fumes, especially carbon monoxide. The easy availability of this poison induced many suicides. When the old heaters were replaced by cleaner burning ones, there were, logically, fewer coal-gas suicides. But, not so logically, there were fewer suicides overall.

It seems that suicides increase when it is easier to commit the act and decrease when circumstances make it more complicated and difficult.

If you want to stop people from jumping off of bridges, you do not need to know why they want to jump. You simply need to build a higher fence. Not only will that reduce the number of jumpers, but it will also reduce then number of suicides.

This means that we should not believe that the self-destructive impulse is going to express itself one way or the other. In the absence of a convenient means the impulse will often simply fade away.

Freud would have called this repression; he insisted that the repressed impulse would always return, usually in more virulent form. Yet, the new research says that the impulse is not simply repressed. It vanishes.

How does this happen? First, the absence of a convenient means forces the person to think about what he is going to do. It gives him the chance to look at his action from the outside, as others might see him, and this of often none too attractive. Second, the impulse seems to look for a cue in the outside world. If the world provides the means to act-- with a free path over the side of the bridge or a loaded pistol-- then that might be taken as a sign that the impulse is correct. If no means are available, then the mind seems to reject the impulse as not its own.

While this does not apply to all cases, it does apply to a statistically important sampling. And it is sufficiently compelling to merit some serious thought.

Monday, July 7, 2008

But Is It Art?

Among the dogmas of modern intellectual life we find this one: reality is socially constructed. If you are out of touch with reality, this idea is a godsend.

Applied to gender, it sounds like this: "man" and "woman" only bear the most tenuous relationship to biological differences. They have been constructed by the male power elite in order to oppress women.

If mothering, for example, is a social construct, then the behaviors that constitute it do not derive from any biological functions. Most of them could as easily be provided by non-females. Biology may provide the trigger, but the institution has developed according to an entirely different logic. It might really be a way to express power relationships.

It all resembles Freud's theory of dreams. Even if a dream is triggered by an alarm clock, its meaning has nothing to do with the external stimulus. For Freud dreams have a mind of their own. For social constructionists institutions do too.

Apply the same thought to a work of art. Is an object a work of art because everyone thinks and says it is or is it art because it shares an essential quality with other works of art?

Social constructionists will tell you that the discourse makes the work into art. In principle, and, nowadays, in practice, anything can be a work of art if it satisfies certain predicates:

1. It is hanging or standing (or has hung or stood) in a gallery or a museum.
2. It was signed or produced by someone who is considered to be an artist.
3. It evokes a specific emotional response, one that calms us, questions us, and induces contemplation, but does not incite us to act.
4. It provokes a certain amount of critical writing about what it means, what it does, and what it wants us to think.
5. If it is fine art, its status is greatly enhanced when someone spends a great deal of money to possess it.
6. It has no real use in the world.
7. It is not made to be consumed; thus, it is thought to be eternal.

Apply this to a dead fish. Say an artist takes a dead fish and suspends it in a vat of formaldehyde. He gives it a fancy metaphysical title: "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." A very important collector buys it from another very important collector for a large sum of money. The new owner lends it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, thus allowing the museum to consecrate it, to give it an imprimatur. Then the critics pop up to explain the meaning of the dead fish.

As you know, I am not talking about just any dead fish. This one is a tiger shark. It was placed in its vat by Damien Hirst. Hedge fund tycoon Steven Cohen, the head of SAC Capital, bought it from Charles Saatchi for $8,000,000.

Before the transaction was finalized, Hirst was obliged to replace the original tiger shark. The laws of biochemistry had taken out after the fish and were turning it into a pile of mush on the floor of its new aquarium. Reality bites ... even dead sharks.

Doesn't this sound like the Hans Christian Anderson story: "The Emperor's New Clothes?" And isn't that story the definitive refutation of social deconstructionism: the fact that everyone says the emperor is clothed in the finest finery does not make him less naked.

So, was a master of the universe ripped off by a mountebank? Did Steven Cohen exchange part of his vast fortune for a dead fish? Or else, has his action added a new meaning to the artwork?

Does the work not represent a rough justice where ill-gotten gains, amassed in finance and commerce, are redistributed to those who have access to a higher truth.

As a social activity Cohen's purchase resembles contributing a tithe to a church or even buying indulgences. Perhaps it allowed a big fish like Cohen to contemplate the error of his hedging. Perhaps it tells us that hedge fund operators are predators. What could be a better example of the ultimate predator than a tiger shark: this notorious man-eater doubles down on predation: it is both a tiger and a shark. Give Hirst credit for being clever. Give him credit for being brilliant. But is it art?

In the investment world, the question would be: is it a trade or an investment?

In other words, is there an intrinsic difference between a child's doodles and a Cy Twombly, between the Goldberg Variations and Mary Had a Little Lamb? Or does the only real difference lie in the way people have been induced to discuss the one or the other.

Collecting an object that has intrinsic value is surely a good thing. Otherwise, it is all just a trade.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Polyamory is in the air. Or, I should say, it is on the air in a new CBS series called Swingtown. For those who are nostalgic for the heady times of the Ford administration this series brings it all back. And it makes polyamory or swinging or wife-swapping look like a reasonable option on the a path to sexual liberation.

In a related development self-created internet star Julia Allison recently posted a blog entry recommending a book called The Ethical Slut. In France that is called a tout pour plaire title. Anyway, JA was looking for a way to deal with her "constipated sexuality" and she found something appealing in that book. She liked its caring, loving, respectful attitude toward sexuality and adds that if her dates were as respectful as the authors of the book they would be getting more sex from her.

The strange part comes when you look up this book on Amazon and discover that it is about polyamory, fact that JA ignored in her post. Place that in the equation and her post is saying that a man who respects a woman will happily barter her intimacy to another man in exchange for a romp with his wife. With everyone consenting, of course.

As you know, serial adultery was not invented in the 1970s. From courtly love to courtesans Europeans had perfected the art long before the arrival of the baby boom generation.

With a significant difference. In the past people were discrete. They hid their dalliances from their partners... out of respect. Whatever a husband or wife did with his or her free time... it was considered rude to rub a spouse's face in it.

Up until the 1970s, that is. Baby boomers introduced a new concept, one that was sanctioned by the therapy culture, the counterculture, and the Playboy philosophy: they decided that they had to be open and honest about their sexuality, the better to liberate it from Puritanical capitalistic repression. So they dispensed with discretion and introduced something like contracts.

They believed that as long as everyone explicitly consented, then it was all OK. If two people decide that it is alright than it is alright. You can see how easily this notion simplified thorny and difficult moral issues.

Therapy had taught people that they could define their sexuality as they wished. They could rewrite their own sexual narrative. According to JA this is the message of The Ethical Slut.

Anyway, the culture was saying that adultery was not the real problem. The problem was dishonesty. If we were open and honest about all of our sexual desires then we could actualize all of our hidden sexual potential. We would not only be exploring our sexuality but we would be exploring the sexuality of our neighbor's wife or husband.

The new principle was: if you spouse consents and if he or she is getting some of his or her own... then neither of you is cheating. How could anything be wrong with pleasure?

Back in the 1970s many of the intrepid sexual explorers started to have feelings of jealousy, envy, inadequacy, or shame. Some people did not rejoice in the opportunity to watch their spouse getting it on or getting off with someone else.

Of course, the culture was at the ready with an answer. Their negative emotions meant that they needed therapy. Therapists proposed helping people to feel better about feeling bad. Of course, these same therapists had promoted the ethical principles that made wife-swapping feel normal in the first place. Thus, therapy had induced the behavior and then offered to treat the anguish and despair that accompanied it. Tell me that is not a good business model.

Anyone who was there knows that it seemed like a good idea at the time. For many people it was an experiment. They wanted to know whether there really were rules for human sexual commerce and whether these rules applied even to people who had decided to ignore them.

Is sexuality just a social construct? Can you define it as you please? Can you make it up as you go along?

The answer seems to be: No. How do we know this? By the simple fact that wife-swapping seems to have contributed to a spike in the number of divorces. And, over the long term very few couples will say that it contributed to their overall bliss.

More philosophically, the problem lay with the notion of consent. If you consent to allow someone to exploit you and you simultaneously exploit the other person with his or her consent, you are still engaged in exploitation. If you enjoy it, that is fine, but do not imagine that two people who are using each other for their mutual pleasure are not using each other.

It simply means that they have no grounds for a lawsuit. And that, after all, is what this is all about. Signing a document, drawing up a contract, does not change reality; it does not repeal human nature. Saying that it is so does not make it so; agreeing that it right does not make it right.

The earth does not revolve around the sun because we say that it does. And it will not stop revolving around the sun if we all agree that it should not.

Signing a consent form does not redefine reality. Thinking otherwise makes you a contemporary believer in the ancient Chinese philosophy of legalism.